Who Is Responsible For a Retaining Wall?


In most instances, retaining walls are the responsibility of the downhill property owner since they graded their land level and created the need for such structures. This remains true even if the owner sells their land and a new owner takes over. The Amazing fact about neighbors retaining wall falling on my property.

Owners who backfill their yards may become liable if this leads to the need for a wall, though such incidents are rare.

Who Built the Retaining Wall?

Retaining walls are permanent protective structures that separate lower land from higher land. Constructed out of stone, brick, cinder blocks, or concrete, keeping walls helps hold back soil that would otherwise collapse into lower areas or cave in by holding back against collapse, slump, or slide-in. Because retaining walls play such an essential role on any property owner’s land, their safety must always be ensured, which includes repairs when damaged or malfunctioning correctly; when they straddle two or more properties, there may be disagreement as regards who should maintain them – so conducting a field survey will determine precisely where its exact location on all properties a field survey should take place to establish who should keep it and who bears responsibility.

Homeowners looking to construct a retaining wall should consult an experienced construction contractor. An expert in this field can advise on materials that best suit budget, soil conditions, and more. This makes decision-making more straightforward and safer than trying this task alone. Doing it alone carries with it potential injuries from lifting heavy objects.

Homeowners should do more than select a trustworthy professional when choosing their contractor; they should also seek references and read reviews from previous clients to choose one with top-quality work that will last over time. It would also be wise to find someone offering warranties for their services to guarantee they will be around in case natural events cause damage.

Erroneously constructed retaining walls can create severe issues for adjacent properties. A non-secure wall may shift or collapse altogether, leading to injuries and costly repairs of surrounding structures.

To protect itself against this scenario, the City requires permits and an engineer-designed layout for any retaining walls over 4 feet tall and any that will cross utility easements.

While your neighbor may allow you onto their property to repair a retaining wall, getting written approval from the landowner before beginning any work is wiser. Doing so can prevent future disputes and help ensure legal support for keeping a retaining wall intact to protect their property from further damages. Under the law, landowners have an unfettered legal right of lateral support that gives them legal permission to keep up retaining walls as needed without damaging their properties.

Shared Responsibilities

Your house might be near a retaining wall you have not considered in recent months, but upon closer examination, you realize it needs repairs or could collapse imminently. Whose responsibility is it, then?

If you and your neighbor agree to build the retaining wall, you share equal responsibilities for its maintenance and repairs. In cases where you can’t reach an agreement, uphill neighbors are only accountable if they built illegally without prior approval, though such instances are rare.

However, if the retaining wall lies entirely within one property’s borders, only that owner must take responsibility. Therefore, both parties involved must communicate and agree on how and who is responsible for any issues regarding building the wall and ongoing care and maintenance.

Uphill neighbors may not be held responsible for retaining walls when their actions led to its need in the first place, such as backfilling their yard and changing its natural slope. They could, however, be responsible for any walls located along a municipal right-of-way.

Failure of retaining walls may occur for various reasons, with erosion by water washing away soil. Over time, however, they may wear out from use and become compromised.

Failure of retaining walls can result in devastating property damage and injuries for which both neighbors may be held liable, which makes awareness of liability risks associated with these walls important for all involved parties. Furthermore, purchasing an insurance policy that covers this type of liability (whether through your homeowner’s policy or separately through specialist insurers) would also provide additional peace of mind.

Common Law Right of Lateral Support

Each owner owes the other support if a retaining wall is built along property lines. This straightforward concept often escapes many homeowners, city engineers, and city attorneys. An uphill landowner must provide lateral support to their neighboring downhill land to prevent it from collapsing onto their property and becoming part of theirs. These lateral supports typically come from natural land slopes or features like streams, creeks, and ditches. When retaining walls are in place, landowners on either side must regularly maintain them to prevent erosion and collapse into their properties. When the downhill landowner excavates or alters their property or modifies its natural slope, an uphill landowner must also provide lateral support to maintain a proper pitch. This may be done during construction and excavation activities. Still, care must always be taken not to destroy the lateral consent of an uphill property owner – this would violate their duty of lateral support and be subject to damages liability claims against that excavator.

Courts have held that the standard law duty of lateral support does not only extend to coterminous surface landowners. Indeed, one New York court of appeals ruling recognized this right over properties separated by intervening land owned by others. It should be noted, however, that this duty does not excuse landowners from complying with any building codes when undertaking construction or excavation activities on their properties.

As excavation activity occurs during which retaining walls are constructed, it can be impossible to ascertain whether there was an agreement among excavating and uphill landowners regarding who will provide lateral support. It is, therefore, essential for anyone wanting to build or excavate on their property to refer to any relevant laws and records such as zoning ordinances, cadastral maps, or surveyor’s notes to ascertain whether any duty exists of providing lateral support from their landowner to uphill landowner.

Damaged Wall

Retaining walls can create legal disputes between neighbors due to drainage, permits, damage, and repair issues. While property lines must be understood accurately, alternative structures like tiered rocks or planters could provide more beneficial solutions that reduce disputes and costs.

Where there is no explicit agreement about ownership or maintenance of a wall between properties, the law presumes they belong together; however, legal rules regarding joint ownership can be more complex. If unsure how best to proceed, speaking to your neighbor politely about this matter might help; alternatively, you could contact local law enforcement authorities as further steps.

No matter the nature of a wall, whether shared or not, its maintenance must remain top-notch to prevent collapse onto neighboring properties and lawsuits against its owner. Should it begin failing, negotiations might allow both parties to agree to share responsibility for repairs or assign one party the maintenance task.

When you or a neighbor decide to repair their retaining wall, it must conform to local building laws and codes. Before starting any repair work, consult the City to see if a permit is needed and its cost. Furthermore, inform all neighbors affected that you will be doing work that involves them, as this could prevent legal actions against them should their wall later collapse and cause damages.

Two properties may join forces to construct one retaining wall spanning both sides of their boundary; in this case, costs associated with repairs and maintenance are divided among owners according to who benefits most from having the wall in place.

Retaining wall disputes between property owners are familiar. They may arise due to poor drainage, soil erosion, or sudden storms. The parties involved often resolve their differences through discussion and cooperation; otherwise, mediation and arbitration services can help settle their differences.

Read also: What Is Cunningham’s Law?